We Went to the Death Cafe

We find it a real conversation stopper to mention to our friends that we attended a Death Cafe in Ithaca last week. At a loss, they cast their eyes to the floor and then say something like “Wow, you two are really getting into this!” Death is a taboo subject in America, even though there are sound emotional, practical, and financial reasons for talking about it. Death Cafe offers a place for those conversations.

Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David

Not afraid to discuss death. Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David

The name is off-putting, of course. If we’re doing our best to deny death, the last thing we want to do is to say the word. But perhaps that’s the genius of Jon Underwood, the Londoner who founded Death Cafe — if we’re going to try to get a perspective on this thing, we have to pronounce its name. Once we have gained some perspective, we’ll be a little freer to experience the joy of life.

More than 2,200 Death Cafes have been held in 31 countries since they got underway in 2011. There are no agendas, no guest speakers, no team-building exercises, and no flip charts. People, often strangers, simply sit down and talk while enjoying light refreshments. Death Cafe guidelines stress that the meetings are not bereavement groups nor therapy sessions — they are simply places to talk. Facilitators are encouraged to promote open and straightforward discussion.

This certainly happened at the Death Cafe we attended. In Ray’s group, we talked of all sorts of things that had been on our minds.

Is cremation environmentally safe? Some doubted it, but others pointed out that in the great scheme of things the amount of natural gas consumed probably wasn’t very great. Anyway, cremation gives survivors a lot of options in terms of dealing with the remains.

Why is it that doctors often seem not to know what to do with our advance directives, even though we’ve all been encouraged to leave a copy with them?  Perhaps because physicians can be just as reluctant to talk about death as anyone else.

I mentioned dealing with a relative, nearing death, who really needed to go into assisted living, but was fighting it tooth and nail. I drew some comfort from learning that my experience wasn’t at all unusual. Others had found just what I did — once someone finally accepts assisted living, they are likely to feel happier and more secure than they have in months.

I learned of the existence of the Funeral Consumer’s Alliance, “dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral.” The organization’s website offers useful information on planning a funeral. A local chapter publishes an annual cost comparison for funeral homes in the southern Finger Lakes.

At my (Donna’s) breakout group, the mood was one of willingness to share. I was the only newcomer, but there was no sense of awkwardness for being there for the first time. It is truly an open and inviting environment.

Like Ray’s group, we touched on a number of subjects: everyone is invited to open a topic that’s on the mind. We talked of the extraordinary medical measures that seem to occur, even when the patient and/or family have previously indicated no desire for such. While doctors may be reluctant to deal with the finality of an illness or accident, one observation was that it is often the nursing staff that have a clear view of the situation and are able to relate it to the family. (This was actually the case when we lost Ray’s mom.) There was also discussion of whether we know what our own choices will be when the time comes: the urge for life is extremely strong.

We talked of becoming comfortable with using the words death and mortality. After all, if we can’t accept it ourselves, how are we to broach the topic with our children and others when it comes time to have The Conversation that is included in nearly all advice for aging and dying responsibly.

We also talked about hospice care, green cemeteries, and so much else.

In short, we both found attending Ithaca’s Death Cafe to be an informative and valuable experience — even enjoyable. Laughter was often heard from the tables of the discussion groups. It was an experience we intend to keep talking about.

The Death Cafe website includes a list of upcoming cafes. If you can’t find one near you, there are instructions for organizing one. Have you been to a Death Cafe? Let us know your experience.





4 thoughts on “We Went to the Death Cafe

  1. Frank Wade


    Your comments are thoughtful and helpful. I teach a seminary course on Preaching the Pastoral Offices which means baptisms, weddings and funerals. One of the basic points in the class is that there is a reason people come to the church for those events. We do not baptize in libraries, get married in hospitals or take our dead to the courthouse. We do those things in church because the church has something important to say about such things. If we limit our teaching and proclamation about funerals, etc to emotion laden events like baptisms, weddings and funerals we severely limit the depth to which our message can go.

    One of the things wish I had thought of while I was still serving in a congregation is the notion of having annual “instructed” baptisms, weddings and funerals. Having a mock funeral on a Sunday morning when no one has died provides a wonderful teaching opportunity, preparing disciples for the inevitability of death as Bishop Coates-Stone wisely suggested.

    Frank Wade

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: A View from the Pew: Preaching on Death? | Common Sense for Seniors

  3. Susan Skellan Seltzer

    I just found your blog, Ray. I attended a Death Cafe here in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, in May. I agree that it was beneficial for all who attended and that we had stimulating discussion re many issues surrounding death and end of life care. So refreshing to see someone addressing these issues online. Thank you. I will continue to follow your posts as I live in an “age friendly” community and these are all very timely topics.
    So great to see both you and Donna at the 50th Central class of ’62 reunion and hope to see you again at a future gathering.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Richard

    Thanks, I didn’t know about these cafes. I’m afraid I’m one of those who will fight a nursing home or assisted living. It’s not really living and it’s not the way I want my life to end. I wish assisted dying was more acceptable.
    (I also wish you had a wider audience. Your comments are excellent.)



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